Before attending Assistant Professor José Casas’s “Flint,” I had already decided that I really wanted to like it. The premise of the play — a “call to action,” as the author describes it, meant to inform audience members of the Flint water crisis — seemed noble and highly important.
While the play did have its poignant, powerful moments, it lacked the focus and clarity to bring them home. The disparity of the many narratives in the play all but eliminated any overarching themes that might be drawn from the crisis, reducing a complex crisis into a series of heart-wrenching individual problems.
To understand these problems, one must first understand the basic structure of the play. It consisted of a series of monologues and duets in which people affected by the Flint water crisis spoke to the audience about their experiences. Over the course of the evening, we heard from various concerned stakeholders: a professor, an Autoworld worker, a deliver guy, an attorney and a nurse.
Though this technique was interesting at first, it eventually became cumbersome. I found myself wishing that characters would interact with each other at some point — that some character evolution or continuity between scenes and characters would begin to develop.
Furthermore, at many points, the dialogue resulting from this narrative structure began to feel awkward and preachy. The play began to feel as though it were a series of interviews with unrelated subjects, each one addressing the audience to detail the horrible effects that the crisis had on their life. The great disparity between the messages of these characters, however, diluted any central narrative or take away that might have developed.
Despite this, the acting talent on display was impressive. Any scene requiring a monologue usually becomes a staple of an actor’s repertoire; in this instance, the cast was required to perform two or three quasi-monologues each. Each member of the cast excelled in this regard, consistently breaking the fourth wall and speaking seemingly extemporaneously to the audience without losing the audience’s attention.
The opening and closing ensemble numbers, for example, were absolutely stunning. In the opening, various members of the ensemble doubled each other‘s dialogues about the crisis. These were short, powerful statements meant to capture the lasting effects of this crisis. And near the end, as water flowed out of the pipes on the edges of the stage, the cast’s violent motions and groaning noises were truly horrifying; of everything in the play, this is the moment that stuck with me as I left the theater.
The set was very impressive: A chain-link fence stuffed full of dirtied water bottles framed the stage while dark brown pipes flanked the back left and right portions of the stage. During the intermission, these pipes were uncapped — in the ensemble scene, a slow trickle of water dripped from them into giant oil barrels.
A few of the narratives were particularly moving. The Attorney’s complaints about potentially moving trials to majority-white counties, for example, was particularly captivating. The Gardener and Socialist were also quite powerful, as the Gardener spoke of the peace that gardening brought him, the Socialist spoke of the damages that lead and other foreign substances can have to plants grown in contaminated soil.
The last minutes of the play, however, were its most powerful. In this monologue, a woman of color speaks to the audience about the cultural expectations that mothers (and mothers of color) face in speaking about this crisis. At one point, she tells the audience that “this play is over.” As the house lights abruptly turned on, she admonished us to listen to these stories and respond to them — to act on what we had heard and help be part of the solution.
In the end, I found myself wishing that the whole play had been this commanding. And while I applaud Prof. Casas’s ambitions on this project, I cannot say that it entirely lived up to what I had hoped for. Ultimately, it was a lengthy, slightly-disorganized rumination on the hazardous effects of the Flint water crisis — an incredibly important play, though not the most well-executed attempt.